Over the last few years of studying Japanese, I’ve met more than a handful of J-pop fanatics. Heck, some people I know owe all their mad Japanese skills to studying AKB48 lyrics like their life depends on it. Honestly, those people have always impressed me more than how much I Can’t Believe It’s not Butter actually tastes like butter. I’ve even tried to emulate their study habits in the past thinking it would work for me. But, I have a secret. Shhh don’t tell anyone… but I’ve never really had a thing for J-pop. I’ve just never been able to get into most J-pop artists. What was I to do?! I searched the interwebz far and wide for J-pop I could listen to on a regular basis, but it only lead me down a darker path.
Two years ago, while undoubtedly procrastinating school work, I came across a music video called “美人” (Bijin) by Super Junior, and my mind was blown. “Why, this isn’t like other J-pop at all!” I thought. Well, I was right and it really wasn’t J-pop at all, but a K-pop song translated into Japanese. And from there, I fell absolutely in love with it and was helplessly swept under the K-pop carpet never to see the light of day again (someone stop the madness).
K-pop was a new thing for me at that time (as I’m sure it was for many people in the US with Gangnam style) and I couldn’t help but wonder why there were so many songs in Japanese. I found out that K-pop wasn’t as new a phenomenon in Japan as it is in the West. Quite the contrary, in the last decade K-pop has flared in popularity among youth not only in Japan, but many other countries such as India, the Philippines, etc. Even so, Japan is a special case.
The Dawn of K-pop in Japan
The K-pop industry isn’t all that old itself. It started in 1995, so that means it’s probably younger than you, just a wee baby. It wasn’t long after that K-pop became a trend in China and Taiwan, but it wasn’t until 2003 that K-pop started gaining a presence in Japan (I was still listening to 50 Cent and Avril Lavigne on the radio). It looked as though K-pop would never catch on in Japan, but the stars aligned when BoA and DBSK infiltrated the J-pop scene and the K-drama Winter Sonata became a smash hit in Japan, starting a K-frenzy.
“Hey mommy! Look at the K-pop fans!” “Shhhh honey, don’t point.”
Although K-pop is a huge deal in Japan now, nothing was taken for granted in the beginning. Due to its economic success and a whole slew of political reasons, Japan has been regarded with a combination of intimidation, admiration, and even loathing by its surrounding countries over the last century. This sentiment, and the fact that Japan already had a strong, influential pop culture of its own, made it extremely difficult for K-pop artists to make a name for themselves in Japan. Artists such as BoA and Tohoshinki (DBSK), now considered common household names in Japan, had to fight to be accepted in the J-pop scene.
So how did they do it? Very carefully. S.M. Entertainment, a Korean record company, decided that the only way for a Korean artist to gain popularity in Japan was to blend in. After all, the nail that sticks out gets hammered in, right? Korean artists had to speak like Japanese sheep, they have to dress like Japanese sheep, they had to dance like Japanese sheep, they had to be Japanese sheep. This meant adopting Japanese names (DBSK is known as Tohoshinki in Japan), debuting in Japan with exclusively Japanese albums, and changing their appearance and style to something marketable in Japan.
And it worked. In 2003, BoA became the first Korean artist to break through the Japan barrier by topping the charts with her Japanese debut album Listen to My Heart. This along with the major success in Japan of the hit K-drama Winter Sonata triggered something terrifying and formidable: The Korean Wave! (or 韓流 kanryuu）
Catching the Korean Wave: 韓流
Surf’s up, dude.
So why was it so important for Korean artists to make it in Japan? Well, one thing is for certain. THE MOOLAH! Yup, everyone knew that Japan was where the money was to be made. After all, Japan was the world’s second largest economy at the time. Not only that, but Japan was (and still is) a very influential country. I mean, people in their forties play Pokemon for Pete’s sake. So, as soon as Korea saw that they had a chance at popularity in Japan, Korean artists took advantage of the atmosphere and started pouring their work into Japan to get their piece of the cake, creating a wave. And hey, people bought in to the trend. Good and bad alike, many Korean artists have found success in Japan by riding the wave to its shores.
Many K-pop artists have often been criticized as being cheap and unoriginal, and hey, maybe it’s true sometimes. Even if it was inspired by actual talent, the Korean wave has remained so strong over the last few years in Japan partially because of the novelty of it all. Korean groups didn’t have to debut with new Japanese albums like BoA and Tohoshinki anymore. In fact, artists who tried to debut as J-Pop artists, such as DGNA the Boss and Supernova (whom you probably have never heard of) crashed and burned. So sad! SHINee, on the other hand, was able to sell 24,000 tickets to their “all-Korean material concert” even before they released any Japanese material. All of a sudden, K-pop artists were able to get by without completely adopting Japanese aesthetics. Hence, a bunch of cheap, questionably translated songs and videos were released in Japanese. Observe:
Honestly, these are my favorite kind of K-pop videos in Japanese. The absolute ridiculousness of it all just makes me laugh my pants off! I can’t stop dancin’! It’s pretty kitschy, but even so, there is at least some reference to Japanese culture. Anyone recognize Taitsukun?
Becoming One of Them
“One of Usssss”
On one hand you’ve got BoA, a JK-pop chameleon, and on the other and you’ve got… well, for example, the video above. So, there’s got to be something in the middle. This is where things get interesting. Although Korean groups haven’t been successful in debuting as purely J-pop artists recently, marketing to Japanese youth in a more subtle way has proven effective by creating a hanryuu niche. Most K-pop artists don’t have exclusively Japanese albums, but many artists debut in Japan with Japanese singles. So basically, they take a popular hit in Korea, translate it into Japanese and slap it on a new J-pop reminiscent video to try and sell it to eager, hanryuu-struck, kawaii-hungry Japanese teenagers. Good ol’ fashion marketing. Some of the most successful groups in this category have been Girl’s Generation and SHINee. Check out “Gee” below, one of the most famous K-pop releases ever:
This was kind of unnerving- yet strangely addicting- for me to watch. You can pretty much see the marketing ploys right before your eyes. The Japanese version of “Gee” definitely attempts to mimic J-pop styles. First of all, the fashion is a bit more conservative and less flamboyant in the Japanese version: nice, clean-cut jeans and white T-shirts instead of pink overall booty-shorts! There are also clear differences in the hair coloring and overall hair styles. In the Japanese version the girls are also wearing noticeably less make-up and making oh-so-kawaii hand gestures. Creepy.
Now, just to be fair, it’s not just the girls who are playing the Japan game. While Tohoshinki has had the longest lasting success in Japan, other boy bands have given their all to make it in the land of the rising sun. Let’s have a look at another comparison video:
I don’t know about you, but the first thing I notice in this one is the severe lack of blonde hair, flamboyant feathers, and mohawks in the Japanese version, not to mention the complete removal of the dance breakdown. Perhaps these young boys are trying to pass as the conservative, gentle type to all those anxious Japanese girls, who knows?
In general, the more a K-pop group has adapted to the Japanese environment, the longer-standing their success has been, if they make it at all. Some artists choose to focus more energy on getting big in Japan by releasing Japanese exclusive music videos. Kara is one of those groups. In 2012 this girls’ group won Best New Artist at the Japan Gold Disc Awards with their mesmerizing booty dance, “Mister.” I knew this song and dance way before I knew it was a Japanese video or even who Kara was. Ahh the power of marketing. Yeah, shake your badonkadonk!!!
Even though Korean artists have been able to gain popularity quickly in Japan by riding the wave, only the strategically marketed ones have made it to Japan’s top charts in recent years. Even PSY, who failed to go through with his plan to make a Japanese version of Gangnam style called “Roppongi Style,” was too “Korea” to be as popular in Japan as he was around many other parts of the world.
Just like a wave in the ocean, the Korean wave can’t last forever. Or can it? No one really knows. Already, the girl-screaming, pants-peeing fascination with K-pop has started to die down in Japan. But, K-pop won’t die that easily. Artists have already started to fight back. Recently, I’ve noticed that some K-pop groups are starting to revert back to the ways of BoA and debuting in Japan the old fashioned way. Although they’ve had a presence in Japan for a while now, Super Junior will be releasing their first ever Japanese album this month. I have to show you the ad, just because it’s so painfully cheesy it makes me cry a little:
Japan has been a special market for the K-pop industry because of its level of influence and potential for profit. Looking at K-pop success from a Japanese perspective can give you a really cool insight into some of the subtleties of Japanese culture. Although I never really got much out of listening to J-pop, looking at K-pop songs in Japanese gives me hours of entertainment just because it adds a whole new layer to the cake. It’s also useful information to know if you’ve ever studied Japanese from K-pop songs (or have planned to) because as you can see it’s not always the most reliable thing in the world. But if you think K-pop in Japanese is pretty righteous and you can get your groove on to it, the motivation you get from it alone can be really powerful.
So what do you think about K-pop in Japan? Do you see any major differences in the Korean version versus the Japanese version? Do you think the Korean Wave will last? Have you ever studied Japanese from K-pop? Let me know in the comments below!